Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

After he is dismissed from the British intelligence agency ("the Circus"), retired spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) changes his glasses.

This shot serves a structural purpose. It cues us to recognize that every shot in which we see Smiley with his old, orange-colored glasses will be a flashback. In turn, when we see Smiley wear the black glasses, we will know we are in the present. Yet the film's flashbacks could probably survive the exclusion of this device; it is clear enough, most of the time, when Smiley is remembering his years in the Circus and when he is in the present, investigating who the mole (an infiltrator in the agency) might be. For this reason, the glasses motif equally serves, I think, to create two different kinds of emotional frames. Smiley, in the present, looks back at the life and friends he once knew (even as he rather coldly performs his investigation into the identity of the mole). He regrets that his most meaningful friendship (with the agency's chief, Control, played by John Hurt) ended in suspicion of duplicity. By contrast, in the flashbacks, Smiley's orange glasses blend in with the orange and brown hues of the film's meticulous set design, fully rendering the character's feelings as part and parcel of the Circus itself. Few films have so beautifully rendered what it feels like to be wrested away from the institutions and colleagues through which one has defined one's life.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Heading to Boston!

Heading to Boston for the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, where I'm chairing one of two sister panels on film criticism. It brings to mind a question: what is the best movie set in Boston? I don't know, but the first one that comes to mind is The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), with Robert Mitchum.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Mother and the Whore

The Mother and the Whore functions as a virtual anthology of New Wave styles and themes. Its central figure, the bohemian Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Leaud), clearly believes that cinema is life, in a way that recalls Francois Truffaut's famous sentiment that film could be more intense and richer than life. In one beautiful moment (pictured above), Alexandre describes sitting in a cafe in May 1968, and noticing everyone crying: a tear-gas bomb had exploded. As he says, for a moment there was a "crack in reality"; not simply cracks in cinema (for example, the jump cuts a la Breathless), but in life. Alexandre admits he was terrified. The movies have not prepared him for this moment. We have seen, before this moment, how the themes of earlier New Wave directors have become embedded in his life: his friend's flirtation with Fascism, and the later revelation of a girlfriend's murder of her ex-lover, recalls Chabrol's films, and Les cousins in particular; all the ceaseless talk is like a somewhat more liberated variation on conversations in Rohmer; and the sheer duration of the film (four hours) recalls Rivette.Yet nobody in The Mother and the Whore goes to the movies anymore (although they talk about it a lot). As Alexandre discovers (not only in the cafe, but in his tumultuous relationship with a liberated woman, Veronika), revolutions in cinema cannot prepare you for revolutions in life.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

The hallucinatory images near the end of Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin include a series of worried parents and siblings standing outside a high school traumatized by a series of killings. In the midst of this horror stands Eva (Tilda Swinton), the mother of the teenage killer. Like so many of the emotions in this film, the trauma is kept distant from us, in a haze of color filters and soft focus. A void of meaninglessness (and of incomprehensible grief and terror, seen but not really felt) replaces understanding. The director Raul Ruiz once opined (I am paraphrasing here) that detachment and distance are tools one can use to understand how it is possible to fall in love with a work of art. But they are only tools, and not the only ones: when detachment and distance are all you have, the work of art keeps you on the outside, at arm's length, and love is either replaced by purely cerebral admiration, or frustration.  We Need to Talk About Kevin, surely, is in part a tough movie to love because of its difficult subject matter. But it's a frustrating rather than admirable one because those very elements that Ramsay seems to be using to draw us closer to Eva's own feelings of detachment and alienation (the pop songs, the hatred the others in her town hold for her, the contempt she holds for her child) only push us farther away. Of course, drawing an audience into the experience of alienation is one of the most difficult tasks any director can pose for herself; by their very definition such moments are inaccessible. But it is no help that the director, authorially intervening a little too much, herself pushes us away. In the scene of Kevin speaking, on a videotape, about the sadism of watching stories about killers like him, he's talking ostensibly to his mother; but really, he's talking to us. We're the sadists, it seems, for going to this film in the first place. Certainly Ramsay herself, as the source of these images, is implicated here, too.  But just like the film's other nods to possible reasons for Kevin's behavior (sadistic video games, child abuse, parental resentment), the idea that images and media saturation might be the source of his violence disappears, like everything else, into a void. What we are left with is the movie's dehumanizing and unsatisfying depiction of Kevin as an incomprehensible monster.

Friday, March 9, 2012

My Night at Maud's

My Night at Maud's (Eric Rohmer, 1969)

Maud has warned her new friend and dinner guest, Jean-Louis, not to go out in the snowstorm. Against his Catholic principles (and in the face of his fixation on a blonde girl he has spied at church the day before), he agrees to spend the night in her apartment. They have a long conversation. She is willing; he is indecisive, going to and fro from her bed. At one moment, she opens her heart to him (as he sits near her), and tells him of the lover she lost to a car accident. As she leans forward toward the camera, and tells her story, a shadow passes across her face; it is Jean-Louis, once again becoming distant, leaving her side as she talks. In the next shot he is across the room, standing away from her. To begin to understand this film, and to begin to understand how Eric Rohmer made movies, you have to understand this moment: not simply listening to what characters say, but looking at what characters do as they talk, and seeing how their words take shape in the lives of others.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Another Kind of Top Ten

"As Daddy said, life is 95 percent anticipation." - Gloria Swanson

As one of the co-editors cogently argued in an essay in this book, cinephilia is every bit as much about anticipation as it is about reflecting upon past cinematic experiences. So, in the wake of top-ten-of-2011 fury, I offer the ten film experiences I am anticipating the most over the next year. Let's hope the remaining 5% in the quote above isn't disappointment. I like surprises and revelations as much as the next guy, but fulfilled expectations also have their pleasures. 

1. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, TBA). With Philip Seymour Hoffman as an L. Ron Hubbard figure, and Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams in tow. Shot on 65mm film, with a score by Jonny Greenwood. Yes, please.

2. Low Life (James Gray, TBA). Now that Joaquin Phoenix has un-retired, James Gray can start making movies again. With Jeremy Renner and Marion Cotillard.

3. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, May). The conversation about whether or not Anderson is "maturing" has already been broached upon the release of the trailer. Let's put this to bed now: it is not possible to make a film as beautiful and as emotionally complex as The Royal Tenenbaums without being "mature." The trailer is full of perfectly symmetrical shots, slow-motion set to 60s pop music, and Bill Murray. I'm there.

4. The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, March). Davies makes the most achingly romantic films around; I only wish he would make more. Rachel Weisz is an acceptable Gillian Anderson substitute.

5. Brave (Pixar, June). After a couple of years of sequels, I am looking forward to Pixar's first female-led animated film.

6. The Wettest County (John Hillcoat, August). Gary Oldman and Jessica Chastain. In. The. Same. Movie. And this rock n' roll auteur wrote it. And Hillcoat has already made one masterpiece (The Proposition).

7. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, December). Now that Michael Mann has apparently returned / retired to television, Bigelow has every opportunity to assume his mantle as America's premier action auteur. Hopefully this film distances itself from military ideology a little bit better than The Hurt Locker did.

8. The End (Abbas Kiarostami, TBA). Kiarostami returns to Japan, where he filed his 2005 Ozu tribute Five.

9. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, TBA). No one has become more steadily reliable than Cronenberg; perhaps he can turn Robert Pattinson into, you know, an actor.

10. Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas, TBA). Any new Assayas film is an event; I hope it finds its way into Southern U.S. distribution.

Alas, the film currently known to the world as Untitled Terrence Malick Project does not qualify for this list, since Malick's epic post-production methods make a 2013 (or even 2014) release more likely.